Summarizing the Report from the Task Force on the Study of Marriage


This Sunday, my congregation will discuss the work of the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, as part of conversations leading up to General Convention next week. Before we discussed it, I thought it would be good for me to read it. Then I saw how long it is!

So, for purposes of conversation at St. Thomas and elsewhere, I’ve written a 6 page summary of the 122 page document. I do recommend reading the whole thing – very interesting information. It can be found here. (However, I think the extranet site is closing prior to Convention – don’t know if that affects this document).

Some background. This task force was created by General Convention in 2012 at the request of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, “to identify and explore biblical, theological, historical, liturgical, and canonical dimensions of marriage.” The SCLM had developed rites for blessing same sex relationships but recognized the need for a church wide conversation about the nature of marriage. An additional piece of 2012 legislation that proposed amending our canons (or church laws) on marriage (from lifelong union of husband and wife to lifelong union of two persons) was referred to this committee for their discussion.

The Task Force focused its work around this question: “What might The Episcopal Church have to say to today’s world as to what makes a marriage Christian and holy?”  They met twice in person and nine times via web. As requested, they consulted with bishops and deputies, with dioceses outside the US, with various Standing Committees, and with ecumenical partners. (A caveat – I’m not convinced that is the question they were asked to explore, but nevertheless that is how they describe their focus).

They produced seven essays on the subject and come to GC 78 with two proposed resolutions.  They also produced a document for discussion in congregations titled Dearly Beloved, available here. The resolutions are:

  • Amend the marriage canons, proposing more extensive amendment than was proposed in 2012. See full text here. In addition to replacing language about husband and wife with “two persons”, this proposal refocuses the canons on the vows taken in marriage rather than on how marriage is described in the prayer book. Proposed new language in the canons includes a requirement “that both parties have been instructed … in the rights, duties, and responsibilities of marriage as embodied in the marriage vows: that the covenant of marriage is unconditional, mutual, exclusive, faithful, and lifelong.”
  • The other resolution proposes that the Task Force on the Study of Marriage continue its work over the next triennium, this time with more study of changing societal practices around marriage and continued study of the use of rites for blessing same sex couples.

These folks need to be commended for their exhaustive, thorough, and thoughtful work. I’m grateful the Church asked them to do this and grateful they took on this task. Unfortunately, based on what I’ve read here and elsewhere, I’m not sure the members of this task force reflected the diversity of the church on this issue, which is unfortunate. I’ll offer other reflections in a separate, shorter post.

The seven essays are worth reading. Here are rudimentary summaries, based on my own quick reading. I do not claim to have studied this in depth. I found them all helpful but especially recommend for context Essay 5 because it illustrates that the marriage canons have indeed changed over time. Throughout the summary, direct quotes from the document are in italics.

Essay 1: A Biblical and Historical Framework for Thinking about Marriage. Our understanding of marriage has changed over time – polygamy v. monogamy, what degrees of relatives can be married, whether divorce is allowed and under what circumstances, etc. The essay noted that marriage falls into the arena of moral or pastoral theology rather than dogmatic theology (not part of the creeds, not mentioned in early catechisms, etc.). It is not so much a matter of the Christian faith as it is of living a Christian life. One of the purposes of marriage over centuries has been to signify the union of Christ with the church, or of God with the covenant community. It is not that earthly marriages are mere symbols of the heavenly union, but that the heavenly union is the model which earthly marriages should emulate in order to be holy. Quoting again, This quality of union through loving and mutual self-offering is central to the vocation of marriage, recognized as a particular call within the universal call for Christians to love one another. The essay goes on to reflect on the purpose of marriage. The prologue to the marriage rite in the prayer book speaks of procreation. Earlier marriage rites spoke of deliverance from the snares of fornication. Both of these purposes treat people as means rather than ends in themselves. The real purpose is found in the union of the couple themselves.  What makes a marriage holy? For Christians, the solemn vows of fidelity and love until death are promised and made, and the gathered Church witnesses and blesses this new commitment. “From this day forward” the couple “takes” each other, creating a new reality in their union as one in heart, body, and mind. It is this relationship that has been imbued with the Holy Spirit through prayer and blessing in the Name of God, which points to what makes a marriage holy.

Essay 2: Christian Marriage as Vocation This essay, presents marriage as a spiritual practice, a particular vowed manner of life meant to be engaged over the course of a lifetime. The essay reminds that marriage should not be assumed or imposed but freely discerned. All Christians are called to a vocation of love, and marriage is a particular expression of that universal vocation. Marriage is always a union of differences, and the traditional image of union of different genders reflects this understanding. But there is biblical evidence of other kinds of union as well. In marriage, our vocation is not to erase our distinctions, even as we become “one flesh.” Difference is neither eradicated nor “overcome” or transcended, but it is transformed. Our unique humanity is creatively activated, that the couple may be united one with another, becoming a new creation while simultaneously remaining two, distinct. This interplay of difference and unity in Christian marriage need not be limited to male and female, but it can be activated by all manner of human difference.

Essay 3: A History of Christian Marriage Much of this essay is a repeat of Essay 1, but with more detail. Without summarizing all of the historic information, I repeat the reflections at the end of each section.

  1. Jewish and Roman Marriage – What do we learn from Tobit? We see here that marriage was a process, a process that took some time, had several stages, and involved multiple parties, not just the couple. What can we learn about marriage from Roman society? We can learn that marriages can function in society as means to order that society and protect the authority and property of those in power, and that western culture has a long heritage of refusing the legal privilege of marriage to those without freedom or without means and those living at the margins of society.
  2. Christian Marriage in the Early Church – We see in this period of history a widening of understandings of what it means to be human in a way that does not simply equate the human condition with procreative capacities. Celibacy becomes a virtue. We see, as we saw in the early church, alternative models for how to live the Christian life — models that offered women as well as men the means to imagine a life of faith lived beyond the personal and legal confines of Roman marriage. We continue to see a deeply stratified and diverse Christianity in which marriage is not available to all who desire it. We hear explicitly a deep suspicion of the human body and human sexual instincts, a suspicion based in part on recognition of the physical and medical dangers inherent in sexual relationships and in pregnancy in that day. We see an already present tension between the concepts of marriage as a legal and societal act and Christian marriage as a blessed state of life given by God and blessed by the Church.
  3. Marriage in the Medieval Church – In this period, we see that in the process of further sacralizing the nature of Christian marriage in a culture that was growing less enamored with celibate life as the ideal, there was also an unintentional desacralizing of the deeply human elements of marriage. Entering into marriage came to be associated with participating in a particular religious ceremony presided over by a priest, rather than participating in a communal multistage process presided over by the couple and their families and blessed by God in the midst of celebration and feasting.
  4. The Reformation and Marriage – The rejection of the primacy of the celibate life was a core tenet of Reformation thinking, and with that rejection came a new emphasis upon marriage. Marriage was seen as the natural and original means of ordering human life. Established by God in creation, marriage was expected of all Christian people.
  5. Marriage in the New World – This portion of history helps illuminate for the Church the numerous ways in which marriage law was used to oppress, and the numerous ways in which subjugated people continued to find means to establish intimate bonds of familial relationship, despite the impediments to volitional marriage. In communities of deep suffering these self-chosen bonds played a critical role in helping to sustain the spirits and the life energies of those living in the midst of oppression and subjugation.
  6. The Victorian Concept of Marriage – The home-workplace split led to a reconfiguration of familial identity that made the husband in the household the sole breadwinner and defined the many and necessary tasks of the wife as homemaking. Prosperous families prided themselves on their ability to function with one breadwinner, and children in this setting came to be seen less as essential contributors to the economy of the family and more as precious innocents who needed to be nurtured and formed in the faith by their ever-present mothers.
  7. Twentieth-Century Episcopal Marriage – The Church affirms the significance of mutual joy as a central purpose of marriage, even as it expands its own definition of mutuality. The Church continues to ponder the question of divorce. It continues to struggle with the question of who may marry whom, and with the relationship between legal marriage and spiritual marriage.
  8. Twenty-First-Century Christian Marriage – Cultural norms have changed so that increasingly greater numbers of people decide to cohabitate before marriage, including older persons who, for financial reasons, are not economically able to make a decision to marry. And As states across the United States and nations around the world move to legalize same-sex marriage and to allow for adoption of children by same-sex couples, the imperative to develop a theologically sound and culturally sensitive response to the question of the sanctity of a same-sex marriage has heightened.

Essay 4: Marriage as a Rite of Passage.  Rites of passage help an individual transition from one state of life to another. One of the very important questions the Church faces in an age when almost 50 percent of marriages end in divorce is, how do we prepare couples to be ready to enter into just such deeply truthful and culturally challenging rites? How do we imbue our marriage rites with Christic integrity, so that the truths they can proclaim can be heard and received by those present for these rituals? Are betrothal periods — periods of marriage formation comparable to baptismal formation — necessary and essential for this to take place? And how do we undergird and support processes of marriage formation that truly prepare couples not just for wedding ceremonies, but for married life as well?

Essay 5: The Marriage Canon: History and Critique. Canons follow practice – they change over time as needs and practice change. The first canon on marriage in 1868 prohibited the marriage of previously divorced persons whose former spouses were still living, except in cases of adultery. This was repealed and amended in 1877 to add that persons remarried after divorce (except in cases of adultery) could not be admitted to Baptism, Confirmation, or Communion, except in cases of near death.  The convention of 1883 authorized further study but no consensus was reached in subsequent years until 1904. That convention revised and passed a very similar marriage canon, adding that clergy must conform to laws of the state. A Joint Commission on Marriage and Divorce presented an extensive revision of the marriage canon that was adopted in 1931. It added a duty that clergy instruct their congregations on the nature and responsibilities of Holy Matrimony. It also expanded the list of conditions the minister must discern before solemnizing a marriage. It also added new provisions and conditions for the annulment or dissolution of a marriage by reason of the presence of one of the listed impediments to the marriage. It added a process for admitting persons married by civil authority or “otherwise than as this Church provides” to the sacraments. The 1946 convention removed the prohibition of the marriage of previously divorced persons. This revision also changed the requirement that both parties have received Holy Baptism to requiring that only one party be baptized. The 1973 convention revised the marriage canons again. The list of impediments to marriage was eliminated in an effort to move clergy from a legalistic evaluation of the marriage to a more pastoral approach emphasizing the nature of Christian marriage. The clergy were required to instruct and ascertain the understanding of the parties that marriage is a physical and spiritual union entered into in the community of faith by mutual consent of heart, mind, and will intending to be a lifelong commitment. A change in 2000 urged clergy when counseling a couple in an imperiled marriage to the charge to “act first to protect and promote the physical and emotional safety of those involved and only then, if possible, to labor that the parties be reconciled.”

Obviously the point of this essay is to illustrate that the marriage canon has changed over time. The essay also provides a critique of the current canon and explanation of proposed amendment. The new proposal maintains the requirement of conformity to the laws of the state, and clarifies laws of the church as those described in the canon. It replaces “Holy Matrimony” with “marriage” because that is the language used in the prayer book. It also allows the use of any liturgical forms authorized by this Church. The proposal outlines the criteria clergy should evaluate before solemnizing a marriage. The proposed canon does not mention same sex marriage, but the description says, “The Task Force has come to the position of recommending recognition of same-sex marriage in this Church.” The proposed amendment deletes a canonical declaration by the couple of the purpose of marriage (through retaining it in the liturgy), but expands the essentials of the required pre-marriage counseling, basing the counseling upon the vows the couple will pledge to each other and on an assessment by the member of the clergy that the couple understands the duties and responsibilities of marriage. The amendment retains the discretion of clergy to refuse to solemnize any marriage.

Essay 6: Agents of State: A Question for Discernment. This essay simply raises a question many, myself included, often ask. Should the church in the US function as an agent of the state in solemnizing civil marriages? If so, how? The essay calls for further discernment, but does note, Whatever we ultimately discern, the clear mandate from our baptism to respect the dignity of every human being (1979 BCP, 305) calls us both now and in the long run to be consistent in our practice, regardless of the sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity and expression of the prospective spouses, just as we already should be with respect to their race, color, ethnic origin, national origin, disability, or age.

Essay 7: Changing Trends and Norms in Marriages. Lots of data here. A few key points.

  1. The State of our Unions – While our culture is fixated on weddings, the rates at which people are marrying are declining. Divorce rates are down. 48 percent of first births are to unmarried partners. Serial relationships are becoming the norm. The age of first marriage is rising. The decline of marriage in America is trending directly alongside the decline of the imperiled middle class and is seen to help foster a society of winners and losers. Marriage remains the norm for adults with a college education and a good income but is now markedly less prevalent among those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
  2. The Rising Age of Marriage – Costs and Benefits – Benefits: Women who delay marriage have higher annual income, and delays in marriage appear to be driving down the divorce rate. Costs: while couples are delaying marriage, they are not delaying childbirth, unmarried young adults have higher rates of substance abuse and dissatisfaction with their lives.
  3. Explaining the Marriage Delay Phenomenon – Several reasons – lack of jobs that produce enough income to support a family, young adults seeking economic independence, the soul-mate ideal.
  4. The Desire to Marry – Eighty percent of young adult men and women rate marriage as an “important” part of their life plans. Increasingly, and by dramatic percentages as compared to just 20 years ago, young adults see cohabitation as a necessary step toward marriage.
  5. Cohabitation Trends and Consequences – Research is unclear as to whether living together might make a couple more likely to divorce. The true variable seems to be the age at which the couple says “I do”.
  6. Race, Gender, and Ethnic Differences – Falling marriage rates and the rising average age for first marriages are consistent across nearly all racial/ ethnic groups who reside in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. The essay includes some interesting data about how marriage is perceived by different ethnic groups.
  7. Same-Sex Marriage – As of mid-year 2014, a majority of Americans, 53 percent, favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. By generation, there is a more than 30-point gap: 7 in 10 young adults (ages 18-29) favor marriage equality, compared to 38 percent of seniors (age 65+).
  8. Marriage Equality – According to the Office for Congregational Development, 64.3 percent of Episcopalians (1,200,622) in 64 U.S. dioceses live in states or jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is legal, although that should not be construed to suggest that all Episcopalians living in those states support same-sex marriage.

The essay closed with a word about consultation with ecumenical partners who encourage the continuation of this work and a word about the need to continue this work.